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Minter: A Day For The Underdogs To Howl

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 23 2012

Tony Raines was a star of the show at Daytona on Thursday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a NASCAR world dominated by multi-car teams that suck up the high-profile drivers, mechanics and sponsors, it’s refreshing to have at least one day when the lesser-knowns get a share of the spotlight.

Defending Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne was among those racing their way into the 500, but he’s used to the attention. And Terry Labonte, a two-time Cup champion, got in on a provisional. But the real stars of the day on Thursday weren’t as well known.

Among the drivers making appearances in the media center at Daytona following the Gatorade Duels were the underdogs who wrangled their way into the Daytona 500, a race that pays about a quarter-million dollars just to start.

Tony Raines, who has just a one-race deal with Front Row Motorsports, got in on his qualifying speed. With a big smile on his face, he said if you’re going to run just one race there’s none better than the Daytona 500.

And unlike other events on the circuit, starting and parking in the Great American Race isn’t an attractive option, at least not from a financial standpoint. There’s money to be made by racing.

“This is the one race where you can run on the purse, so to speak,” Raines said, quickly adding that if his team hadn’t been able to get in on speed and had to race their way in through the Duels the math might not have worked.

“I believe if we had to race our way in today, and done that, I don’t know that we would have had enough money to race all day Sunday,” he said. “To me, the best opportunity was to be fast enough out of the box where we can concentrate on running the race and hopefully pick up some sponsorship and put out a real good effort on Sunday.”

David Stremme, who has had some of the best runs of his career at Daytona and Talladega, said he was especially proud of being able to deliver a positive result for a small but dedicated group of mechanics that prepare his No. 30 Toyota.

“We only have eight guys,” he said, adding that his qualifying speed, which got him into the 500, came as somewhat of a shocker even to him. “Without being able to come to the test and everything, when we unloaded we actually kind of surprised ourselves,” he said.

There seemed to be general agreement in the garage that it would have been a shame if Dave Blaney hadn’t been able to race his way into the 500. He earned enough points last year to be safe, but his team transferred those points to Danica Patrick and left him to fend for himself.

He said he wasn’t overly worried anyway.

“I was confident we could get in,” he said. “We’ve had strong runs here lately in the restrictor-plate cars.”

For Nemechek, who started and parked most of last year, making the starting field for the 500 as a struggling driver/owner is key to keeping his team in business.

“If you don’t make this race, you never recover it,” he said. “It just has you behind all year.

Robby Gordon, who has made a career of being an underdog, provided a refreshing look at the other side of racing during his stop in the media center, and Michael McDowell, who smiles even in the face of adversity, actually had reason to be beaming after he raced his way into the 500 in the first Duel.

“This is extremely special not just for me and my family, but for our whole team,” he said. “We’ve got six guys back at the shop that worked really hard in the off-season.”

And he didn’t hog the credit for getting his car in the 500.

“I don’t think it’s my ability,” he said. “I just feel like I’m extremely blessed.”

And so is NASCAR, to have a driver like McDowell make the Great American Race.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 23 2012
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